There is great potential in ecumenism today. In an international context, the prominence of individual Christian denominations has fallen substantially from the shibboleths of unquestioned power they had this time a century ago. Thus, the need for working together to accomplish tasks is even more pressing now than it was then. Billy Graham might have said, “this is a big world; we need all the help we can get.” The sentiment holds significance still today, yet from a different vantage point.
A small ecumenical body gathered in Atlanta, Georgia, at Big Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church February 20, 2015, to assess the value of Black Methodist cooperation among youth and young adults. Convener John Thomas of the World Methodist Council noted, “Our bishops talk to each other all the time, our missionaries talk to each other, here’s a space for us to do the same.” Initially, I wondered, “Does anything relevant come out of those talks?” My question about the efficacy of those talks is certainly one of relativity; the answer is likely yes – for those persons involved, the interdenominational conversation is relevant. The burden for THIS encounter, however, was being relevant beyond just those involved.
The meeting began with introductions from the various youth and young adult auxiliaries of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME), African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ), and Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) churches. As we warmed up to each other, we saw commonalities and differences. We were frustrated with bureaucracies, the political economies of our respective groups, and the ambiguous relationships each of our churches had to social justice issues.
Social justice immediately emerged as the thematic thrust of the meeting. There seemed to be a need for this kind of generational cohesion across black Methodism because communities of color within the U.S. in particular (though our discussions were hardly limited to the U.S.) have been calling us to redirect our churches’ attention and resources in meaningful ways. A month prior to this meeting, a group of black Methodists met with community leaders in Ferguson, Missouri, to discuss what black churches could do to assist in struggles against systemic racism in that state. Out of that meeting, emerged a commitment to education with scholarships to various historically black colleges and universities associated with the denominations. In the Atlanta meeting, young adult leaders discussed the need to verify that all scholarships were legitimate after many raised concerns that we were giving scholarships to some institutions struggling with accreditation and financial stability. Though, beyond that, we devised no other plans to address the choir stand of concerns. Of course, there were calls to be more involved in the community. There were suggestions to partner with other organizations that were already doing the work. This suggestion, for me, was most significant given the difficulty we all shared with trying to reorient our various denominations towards a genuine comprehensive ethic of social justice. There were even debates about the nature of our outreach: whether we reach out to communities because we want them in the church or if we do so because we believe black lives matter (or somewhere in between those two). One certainly hopes, however, that in future meetings, we can mobilize a concrete plan of action to do something beyond what our denominations are doing and not doing.
Significant, and mildly related, was a discussion on representation. Many youth and young adult groups across the three denominations struggle with being represented in the leadership of their respective churches, both locally and connectionally. Though representation is important, there was an uneasy question lurking in our discussions about the ability of young adults to actively direct their denomination’s agenda, moving beyond mere representation. Again, the bureaucratic and hierarchical structures have been a historic hurdle for these groups, but I left the meeting with the understanding that there may be hope outside those structures to indirectly lead the church.
The tangibles, as it were, from the meeting are as follows: we have committed to support each other’s’ youth and young adult meetings and to make space for ecumenical and cooperative ministry. We are exploring solidifying this group as an ecumenical body. We committed to support the event “Truth to Power” an event sponsored by Churches Uniting in Christ. Mr. John Thomas the third will be reaching back out with more details about the proposed structure of a potential black Methodist young persons’ organization.